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[This Just In]

FEMINISM
Still (not) together after all these years

BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI

You might expect the National Organization for Women (NOW) ó the champion of equal opportunity for women ó to be front and center when it comes to lesbian rights. But that hasnít always been the case. In fact, the womenís movement and the lesbian/bisexual/transgendered movement have experienced their fair share of disconnection over the years ó which Mandy Carter will discuss in a speech at the first Northeast NOW lesbian-rights summit this weekend. The prominent African-American activist has spent three decades working for both movements. The Phoenix caught up with her at the Boston-based Freedom to Marry Foundation, where she currently organizes support for same-sex marriage.

Q: How have you seen the feminist and lesbian-rights movements divided?

A: That can be summed up with two words: lavender menace. When NOW was on a roll in the 1980s, women pulled together in an unprecedented way. Yet lesbian-baiting was big time. People thought, "Women pulling together? Must be lesbians." NOW was concerned with this image problem. And lesbians who wanted to be connected to NOW didnít expect this response. There was potential for inclusivity. But it didnít happen.... Had there not been the initial balking, we might have seen something different. So here we are in 2001 still talking about how to come together.

Q: How important is it for both movements to come together now?

A: Itís critical. Lesbian or not, weíre all women. For the past 10 years, women have been the focus of anti-affirmative-action initiatives. Do you remember the black Republican in California named Ward Connerly? He ended affirmative action for people of color in that state. Last year, he took his campaign to Florida. He wrote a ballot measure that stated that state contracts or public schools should no longer consider race or gender. When you take women, who are half the Florida population, and tell them, "Youíre not welcome," itís frightening. His measure was disqualified by the Florida State Supreme Court. But then, Governor Jeb Bush signed the same language into law as an executive order. In this case, straight women and lesbians were on the battlefield.

Q: You recently arrived in Boston from North Carolina. What brought you here?

A: I came for something else that NOWís working on ó the issue of same-sex couples and the freedom to marry. Iím here to make sure the faces and voices of this issue reflect the ethnic diversity of our movement. Iím working with people of color, gay and non-gay. Iím working with churches. I was thrilled to find out about the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry here. They have something like 400 signers and congregations supporting the right for same-gender couples to legally marry. As an out black lesbian, itís exciting to reach black, Latin, and Asian churches. We donít want to make it seem like gay marriage is only about gay white people. Itís not. Love is universal.

Q: Why is the right to marry a crucial fight for same-sex partners and feminists alike?

A: Two words: sex discrimination. Look how long it took for women to get the right to vote and be perceived as real citizens. Marriage laws at the state level still give women the short end of the stick. For same-gender couples, thereís a parallel. The right to legal marriage is not about ceremony. Itís about having the same rights as heterosexual couples. Which is why the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders [in Boston] have filed a lawsuit. Theyíre taking it to the courts, like straight women. Married women had to go to the courts to change the laws that treated them like property. Similarly, in the gay community, we have to go to the courts to change the laws.

Q: What would you say is the biggest issue facing both movements today?

A: Beating back these anti-women, anti-lesbian legal efforts. The fact that you can [dislike] women or lesbians is one thing. But when you okay laws that legalize discrimination and bigotry, itís not good. Straight women and lesbians have to come together to fight these threats. Women are more than half of the population of this country. If we could empower women to vote, we could affect incredible change. The womenís vote is critical, and lesbians are women, too. So there you go.

Carter will speak at the NOW Northeast Region Les/Bi/Trans/Allies Strategy Summit, which kicks off Friday, November 16, at 5 p.m. at the Lake Morey Inn in Fairlee, Vermont. Tickets are $30. Further information can be found on the Boston NOW Web site at www.geocities.com/NEregionNOW

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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